You can use the internet to find almost anything: a good restaurant, a recording of a half-remembered old commercial, recommendations for a good book, a podcast about basically anything, and yes, even public records. While our most private information (usually) can’t be found online, you can track down items like birth certificates, marriage and divorce information, obituaries, licenses, and mortgage and bankruptcy info. Keep reading to learn where to find public records online.
First, a brief note
All of the following web sites and methods of discovery are absolutely free, unless stated otherwise. There are many sites out there that advertise themselves as being free, but once you enter in the details of what you’re looking for, they’ll try to charge for their services—and even then, they typically are not providing anything that you can’t find yourself. If you do end up having to pay for something, it will most likely involve heading to a physical location (i.e., a courthouse) in order to procure a copy of a particular public document.
You can use Google to find a lot of preliminary information about someone. Simply Google their name and you can start to assemble a good trail (provided they haven’t chosen to pay for a service like DeleteMe, which scrubs their public info from the internet). If you know what clubs, workplaces, interests, etc. that the person is affiliated with—or their address—your search will be more productive. You can also use Google to look up addresses and phone numbers, provided they’re listed.
The search engine Zabasearch might seem creepy, but it only returns results from material that is already publicly accessible online; it just collects it all in one place. Zabasearch will return previous addresses and phone numbers after only a search by name (which you can also narrow down by adding a state). For anything more substantial than that, you’ll be asked to pony up some money for Intelius, a well-known pay-for-play investigative service. (No thanks.) Zabasearch is great for finding names, addresses and phone numbers (and sometimes birth dates) quickly and easily.
Here are the best mega-sites for starting a vital records search:
If you’re looking for something other than an unlisted or cell phone number (yeah, sorry), you can find it online using these directories:
- Anywho: White pages, yellow pages, international listings, and a toll-free directory.
- Infobel: A world-wide phone directory; extremely extensive.
- Internet 800 Directory: Just enter the name of the product, service, name of the company, or toll-free number.
- The Wikipedia page for international dialing codes: Here’s a good ‘un—Wikipedia has a slightly confusing but comprehensive accounting of the dialing codes for almost every geographical location in the world.
Need to find a professional license for someone? No problem:
- FindLaw’s Legal Directory: State-by-state database of licensed attorneys.
- DocInfo: Find information on licensed doctors in the U.S. with this tool from the Federation of State Medical Boards.
- You can also do a simple Google search to find other licensed professionals.
You can also use the web to find an obituary:
- Legacy.com obituaries: Type in the last name and you’ll get a list of newspaper obits along with records from the Social Security Death Index.
- Social Security Death Index: Type in as much info as you know for better results; a very good tool.
- Death Indexes: A very extensive state by state (and county) list of death records, death certificate indexes, etc.
- Cyndi’s List: A superb list of death and obit sites; ranges from general indexes to locale-specific.
Criminal records are somewhat easy to track, though it varies by state.
- FBI Most Wanted: Includes alerts, featured fugitives, etc.
- Sex Offenders: State by state list of sexual predators and where they live.
- Federal Bureau of Prisons Inmate Locator: Use the first and last name to search a nationwide prisoner database.
- You can also search prison by prison simply by Googling your state+ “department of corrections,” or your state + “death row,” etc.
There are so many more great sites for public records. Here are a few more of my favorites:
- Real estate records: Do a search of public property records to find property tax information, and info about who owns a particular property.
- National Personnel Records Center: The first place to start for military records.
- NNDB: “NNDB is an intelligence aggregator that tracks the activities of people we have determined to be noteworthy, both living and dead.” Fascinating site.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Search records, registrations, and documents; helps to have as much information to start your search as possible.
- Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents: Pretty much what it sounds like; released every Monday.
This list is by no means conclusive. Got a favorite public records search site? Please share in the comments.
This article was originally published in 2007 and updated on October 22, 2020 by Joel Cunningham with updated information, new links, and a new header image. The content was also revised to meet current Lifehacker style guidelines.